The first time I met with Rabbi Jonathan Sacks – more than 20 years ago – was at his office. At the end of the meeting, we both stood up to leave, and although I was closer to the door, I stood aside to let him walk ahead of me. He marched past me, looked at me, and said: “Lead from the front!”
That was the first lesson in leadership that I learned from him. It was also the start of a very special relationship as my teacher and mentor.
I credit Rabbi Sacks for my own continued involvement in Jewish education. His encouragement in every leadership role I have undertaken, and the time he gave to answering my questions, formed me into the person I am today. A few days before I moved to Israel, he phoned me. He wanted to give me a blessing. I remember his words clearly: “Continue to be involved in Jewish education. That’s your strength.” And so, I did.
Last year, my seven-year-old son asked me a question about Moses. I didn’t know the answer, but I knew who would. I emailed Rabbi Sacks’ office, and a few days later, I received a response by way of a voicenote, spoken in his characteristically eloquent style, and at a level that my son could understand. He had a unique ability at being able to direct a message to any audience, regardless of their age or background.
In 2002, I became Mazkir of Bnei Akiva UK, and just weeks into the start of the year, we heard news from Israel that a suicide bomber had detonated his belt on a bus in Tel Aviv, and that one of our members, Yoni Jesner, was on that bus. He was rushed to hospital, and we quickly arranged an evening of prayer at our London headquarters. Yoni was still in intensive care, but we knew there was no hope. As news spread of the gathering, Rabbi Sacks called me to say he would like to be with us. He didn’t wait to be asked; he knew this is where he was needed. He addressed the packed room, giving strength to Yoni’s many friends and his wider Bnei Akiva family. It was a challenging moment for Bnei Akiva, and in Rabbi Sacks we had a leader we so desperately needed to light the way. His presence with us that night was a tremendous source of comfort.
Whenever Rabbi Sacks visited Israel, I would invite him to speak to the Bnei Akiva gap year programs. He never once refused. Bnei Akiva was the movement in which he grew up, and it was clear that he felt amongst friends there. On one occasion, when he finished speaking, he sat down, turned to me, and asked, “Was that okay?” This was the Jewish world’s foremost orator, the Chief Rabbi of the United Hebrew Congregations of the Commonwealth, and he was asking ME if he spoke well! This spoke volumes about his humility. He was the leader of the Jewish community, but he recognised that I was the leader of this group, and so my opinion mattered to him. In three short words, I learned from him that it is not the honours we receive that matter, but the honour we give.
Rabbi Sacks’ essay on the weekly Torah reading for this week closes with the following words: “Walk ahead. Take personal responsibility. Take moral responsibility. Take collective responsibility. Judaism is God’s call to responsibility.”
“Walk ahead” was the first lesson I learned from him. Today, it was also the last.
In one of his books, Rabbi Sacks called on us to heal a fractured world. Now more than ever, we must heed his call and follow in his footsteps. But right now, we just need help healing our broken hearts.
- Jonny Lipczer is Director of Communications at World Mizrachi.
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